Abigail Breslin

Little Miss Sunshine grows up in My Sister’s Keeper

You might expect thirteen-year-old Abigail Breslin to be a rather serious, reserved little girl, given the complex nature of her well-known performances in the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Signs. But the effervescent teen who confidently strides into the room at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto introduces herself as Abby and talks in the exaggerated, excited tones of her fellow teens, a refreshing sign that not every young actress goes the way of the Lohan.

The Oscar nominee is back on the big screen this month with the Nick Cassavetes drama My Sister’s Keeper, which tells the story of the steadily splintering Fitzgerald family, including mom Sara (a surprisingly forceful Cameron Diaz), dad Brian (Jason Patric), leukemia-stricken Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) and her two siblings Jesse (Evan Ellingson) and Anna (Breslin).

Kate’s illness has necessarily shaped their lives and habits, as is so often the case when one family member is gravely sick, but none so much as Anna, who was conceived as a “designer baby.” Thanks to in vitro technology that would ensure she’d be a perfect match for her ailing sister, Anna has lived a careful life so that her sister could prolong hers - until now. Anna wants to take back her body and sues her parents for medical emancipation so she won't have to donate her kidney.

If this storyline sounds rather arduous for your average teenage actress, you’d be right. Luckily, this teenage actress evokes an easy maturity, without a hint of pretension, and took on the role precisely because the story wasn’t easy.

“When I first read the script I looked at the characters and I think that my character is put in a really hard situation from the day that she’s born,” she tells Cineplex.com. “She’s having to help her sister and she’s doing it happily but now she’s put in a situation where she has to choose between her sister and her family. So I thought it was a really hard situation and I liked that there were no bad guys in the movie. They’re all doing what they think is right.”

One family’s joy & pain

The accomplished actress brings this conflict to life as a young girl who wants to experience things firsthand but who’s had to live delicately on the sidelines for the benefit of her sister. Based on Jodi Picoult’s novel of the same name, director Cassavetes (The Notebook, Alpha Dog) revisits the familiar themes of free will and human dignity in this heart-wrenching drama that is a certified weepie – and then some.

But Breslin reveals she sees moment of joy alongside the pain.

“I knew it was going to be a hard movie to make and a hard movie to watch but I think it’s about the family, as much as it’s about all the hard decisions they have to make and all the things that they’re going through. I think that it’s also about the family, even though they’re disconnected from one another, they still all love each other.”

Having two older brothers and a grandfather who succumbed to cancer, as well as a technical advisor in the form of 16-yeard-old leukemia survivor Nicole Shultz, the actress was able to draw on real-world experiences to shape Anna’s emotionally wrought trip to the courtroom.

Holding her own in scenes alongside such seasoned actors as Diaz and Patric, not to mention Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack in supporting roles, Breslin’s character acted as the lynchpin to the story and sends her distant though loving family into a tailspin.

“There were certain scenes that you had to, sort of, stay in, and stay focused on, but there were also times when you’d have to separate yourself from it. You know do the scene and not think about it and I think that helps.”

Luckily, her on-camera family proved to be an “awesome” group – she describes Ellingson as hyper and went shopping with Vassilieva for movie bedroom knick-knacks – but was rather shocked when she first met Cassavetes.

“Nick’s really cool,” she says. “But when I first read the script, I thought the director was going to be quiet and collected and then I walk in and it’s this 6 foot 4, mohawked, tattooed, big guy. And he’s like, ‘Hey!’ and I’m thinking, ‘Am I in the right place?’ He’s sitting there during the scenes, and he’s so big and so tough, and he’s crying.”

Yes, this is a film that can bring a fully grown man to tears while also asking difficult questions about personal autonomy, immortality and dignity. All in a day’s work for Little Miss Sunshine.

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